The Calisto Harpsichord
Calisto harpsichord, 1780
Only a half dozen historic Portuguese harpsichords survive. Most of these were made by Manuel Antunes (the renowned maker of the National Music Museum’s 1767 Portuguese piano). That makes the National Music Museum’s harpsichord by José Calisto, crafted 235 years ago, another rare treasure.
This is the sole-surviving Calisto work.
Unfortunately, very little is known about JoséCalisto — except that he was a skilled artisan — clear from the harpsichord’s craftsmanship. “JozeCalisto” —spelled J-O-Z-E — is the maker’s name inscribed on the harpsichord. It is engraved with personality — in an artful uppercase font that wouldn’t be out of place now on a website or wedding invitation.
If the Calisto harpsichord could speak though — beyond its still-playable music — it could tell about JoséCalisto’s era and the harsh history of colonialism. The veneer on the inside of the harpsichord is made of Brazilian tulipwood, a New World hardwood much hunted in the late 18th century. Tulipwood is a harsh lesson in supply-and-demand. Found only in a narrow geographic area, the tree it comes from is small, offering only small boards. Scarce then and now, tulipwood can be stunningly beautiful — prized for its ‘colorfulness,’ already-stained-like quality, and look after polishing. Brazil was colonized in part for its rainbow of tropical hardwoods, which would eventually replace dyed woods. But harvesting them was intensive, using the labor of indigenous peoples and African slaves.
As if in rebellion, tulipwood — wrenched from its tropical home and shipped afar — is not easily dominated. It is hard on woodworking tools and the skills of the woodworker.
But ultimately, like ebony and mahogany, tulipwood has granted status and luxury to whatever is made of it and to its owners. Consequently, it had been the wood of royalty and privilege, commissioned for the decoration of furniture and -- musical instruments.
The Calisto harpsichord is also notably very long — about six inches shy of a modern Steinway concert grand piano — another sign of its luxury-item status. The shape is geometrically sleek — the result of ‘Pythagorean scaling,’ in which the strings double in length as you descend by octaves.
Despite its singularity, the Calisto harpsichord is still also Portuguese and late-18th century in its decorative style. Its heavily constructed case, made of spruce, is dark green, simple and sedate. Its two bench stands, in contrast, feature almost childlike cutouts in the shape of upside-down hearts.
Astonishingly, the Calisto harpsichord survives — thrives — in mostly original condition, having been restored to playing condition in 1985. The National Music Museum acquired it in 1999.
The Calisto is single-manual harpsichord — meaning it has one keyboard (many harpsichords have two). The sound emanates from its strings as they are plucked by a tiny quill -- making that unique ‘metallic’ harpsichord sound that shuttles you back centuries -- to the Baroque era.
Bach would have reveled in the Calisto and written for it.
This Saturday, October 17th, the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra’s “Night at the Museum” concert at the Orpheum will feature five great National Music Museum instruments, including the Calisto harpsichord. When award-winning keyboardist Byron Schenkman plays Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord in F Minor, he will give Jose Calisto’s masterpiece, and in a sense Jose Calisto himself, a voice yet again.